Raoul Ruiz’s film of the Austria painter Gustav Klimt is perhaps not unexpectedly a far from conventional approach to the biopic genre and his subject. Lying on his deathbed in a Viennese hospital in 1918, where he is being visited by his friend and artist, Egon Schiele, Klimt’s life is reflected upon in a dream-like flowing narrative. If not strictly realist in terms of recreating the biographical facts of Klimt’s life, Ruiz manages nonetheless to depict a fabulously beautiful turn-of-the-century Vienna, with its associated writers, artists and philosophers, from the imaginary perspective of an artist with a unique outlook on the world.
This does not mean however that the film attempts to stylise Vienna into a tableaux vivant of the artist’s lavish art-deco paintings, but rather attempts to get behind the inspiration and the mindset that created them. From that viewpoint, it is an entering into the spirit of the period and its artistic community that is most important here and it is handled by the director with a great degree of authenticity. The Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler is clearly an inspiration, blurring the lines dreams and reality, tapping on the inner desires, memories, fears and sexual drives that lead the artist to dream, to be inspired and to create. Indeed, with the naked models that inspire many of his paintings constantly wandering around his studio and striking up poses, as well as a certain ceremonial and ritualistic aspect to the film, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut often comes to mind, inspired as it was by Schnitzler’s Dream Novel.
In this way, Gustav Klimt (John Malkovitz), lying on his deathbed, feverishly dreaming, recalls certain significant events in his life, the women, the prostitutes and the models who fired the deeply sexual imagery of his paintings, and relives the disputes with fellow-artists, writers, philosophers and the patrons of his art who disagree with his approach, the eroticism in his painting and the allegorical messages that lie behind them. Ruiz films all this in authentic Austrian locations, in Viennese coffee-shops and Parisian brothels, with a series of strikingly beautiful Klimt-looking women, meticulously costumed and elegantly coiffured. There is no attempt to recreate scenes from the artist’s famous paintings, but Ruiz and his cinematographer achieve a sense of the essence of the paintings in the tone and diffraction of the lighting in a stunningly photographed film.
There is no doubt that Ruiz’s approach is quite difficult and at two hours long with scarcely a trace of anything resembling a narrative, it certainly makes heavy demands on the viewer - much as the director did in his adaptation of Proust’s Time Regained. Any attempt to unravel the purpose of the parade of characters who slip in and out of the film – some of them real, some imaginary, others figments of Klimt’s subconscious mind – their relationship with the artist or the part they play in any kind of cause and effect line that that defines the career trajectory of the great Viennese artist, will inevitably be frustrated. It will not be for everyone, but if you are prepared to go with the flow you can, much as you would approach a Klimt painting, rather than look for an underlying meaning or narrative thread, admire instead the lavish splendour, the meticulous craft, the sensibility and the sensuous world that has been depicted here.